Maui terra is just ripe for olives, a surprising boutique crop that is impressing island farmers with its fruitful potential.
It feels like Tuscany, and the landscape would fool even a man from the Old Country. A robust grove of 1,000 olive trees thrives among grape vines and a well-stocked chef’s garden at Calasa Gulch Olive Tree Farm Another 4,000 plants are propagating in the nursery, where they’ll be sold to local farmers interested in the crop’s potential.
This is Kula, Maui. And the soil profile here is the same as in Sicily.
That’s what Alan Battersby learned from his neighbor when the two were talking over uncorked bottles about land, food, wine and the olive tree. And so Battersby, an hotelier, began to transform his 17-acre Kula farm into a delightful spread that appeals to culinarians and agronomists alike.
“We didn’t know if we could even produce an olive four years ago — everyone told us we couldn’t,” says Battersby, who estimates that 50 to 75 farmers on Maui Island today have olive groves, which in his opinion means growing a minimum of 20 trees. Through his consultation business, Battersby has helped start about 20 olive operations and has a few more “on the drawing board.” Meanwhile, he supplies olive trees to a local nursery that sells individual trees to curious residents and trucks-full to area farmers.
All this olive business is rather surprising to most people who associate Hawaii with palm trees and humid tropical weather. Sure, olives aren’t going to outpace Maui’s sugarcane or pineapple crop. But entrepreneurial landowners like Battersby are interested in the possibilities of this Mediterranean-born fruit for pressing gourmet oil and cultivating cured olives that can be sold to the island’s many high-end restaurants.
“I don’t know if [olives] are a viable commercial business, but it sure is going to be a nice gentleman farmer’s small business,” Battersby muses.
“People don’t realize that we have 12 of the 13 soil profiles in Hawaii, everything but the Arctic, and all you have to do is move to a different place on the hill to find a climate for plants to grow,” Battersby says.
Calasa Gulch is located at a sweet spot for olive growing: 2,200 feet above sea level. Go higher than 4,000 feet up the hillside and temperatures drop too low for too many nights. At sub-1,000 feet, the weather’s a bit too wet and warm. There, the olive offers charming ornamental appeal but won’t produce fruit. Ideally, temperatures must drop below 50 degrees — but no lower than 22 degrees — for a cold spell of 17 to 23 days.
In Kula and throughout the farming regions of Maui, the weather’s just right. The earth is not too wet, not too dry — ideal for olive trees that don’t like soggy feet, Battersby says of the drought-tolerant plant.
But even with the perfect growing conditions, a farmer isn’t assured an olive crop. Hawaii’s weather can pose a real threat to the plants. “The weather, as beautiful as it is, is very severe in many ways,” Battersby says. “We either have no wind or we have wind at 80 miles per hour. We either have no rain or we have buckets of rain. These types of stresses on the trees, especially when they are young, are situations you have to get through.”
Shallow-rooted olive trees can be torn up from the ground by strong winds. Battersby and other farmers manage by planting the trees close together and creating wind blocks. Tall, Italian cypress trees guard the olive groves from gusts at Calasa Gulch.
Twenty one varieties of olive are growing at Calasa Gulch, ranging from those with Italian heritage to varieties from Africa. Some, like the Kalamata and Manzanilla, are eaten on their own, while others like the Bouteillan and Chemlali are used for oil.
Meanwhile, Battersby has tried to keep deer from accessing the groves by installing fencing, but it didn’t really deter the grazers. And pigs can be a problem on the island. “They’ll dig for grubs and upset a whole tree,” he says.
Smaller pests like rose beetles munch on olive tree leaves, “but not to any great extent for us,” Battersby says. His friends with farms at higher elevations are struggling with some white fly issues. “But they should be able to manage those with pruning and taking care of the tree.”
Pruning is a major undertaking on Maui, where olive trees experience a double growing season. That’s good news for farmers who are planting the trees to harvest their leaves for tea.
Despite these growing challenges, the olive is actually an easy fit for Maui’s climate and soil conditions. At Calasa Gulch, Battersby is growing 21 varieties of olives from Italy, France, Spain, Greece and northern Africa. The farm is in its fourth season, and was producing flowers in year three. Battersby knew that it would take several years, and no guarantees, before his groves would get going. So he began to focus on the business of setting up orchards for others, which he does for free, and selling plants for modest profit.
Coming to Fruition
Battersby is into olives for the love of the tree, not the “green” it produces. The mill to press olive oil is a $100,000-plus investment that Battersby will make this year in hopes of producing oil with the next crop. He’s not expecting to stock grocery store shelves with the reward of his crop. He probably won’t produce enough olive oil, even with about 10 acres of trees.
But Battersby is passionate about this pursuit, as he speaks about hosting events at Calasa Gulch where homemade pizzas, wine and olives are shared with guests. “If you talk to anyone who is really into olives or grapes, you get hooked and you have a vision for what [the enterprise] could be, and you start developing it,” he says.
“People have an interest in olives like they had an interest in wine 30 years ago,” he adds of the boutique potential. He envisions a time when a dinner guest will take the host a bottle of fine olive oil as a gift.
He’s finding out just how special local olives can be. When Battersby invited some Maui chefs to Calasa Gulch and served his cured olives along with some he purchased from a nearby Whole Foods, the guests — without knowledge of the olives’ source—chose his crop. “So, it appears we can produce a nice olive,” Battersby says.
But what else can farmers produce is the question the agriculture industry is asking. The University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is currently planning olive crop trials at its Lalamilo Research Station in Waimea on Hawaii Island.
And other growers are embracing the olive. Jamie Woodburn and his landscape architect son, Josh, established a consulting business called Maui Olive Company. The Woodburns have about 250 trees on their Kula property. Their firm helped plant trees at Helemano Plantation in Wahiawa, which offers training and work opportunities to developmentally disabled individuals. Their orchard could be part of a vocational training program or provide jobs for people in Wahiawa, according to Hawaii Business article about Hawaii’s promising new olive farming industry.
A dry salt cure will remove the bitterness of fresh picked olives, which are typically hard and bitter. Calasa Gulch recommends layering olives with sea salt for a few weeks before filling the container with warm water, red wine vinegar and olive oil.
Battersby questions the commercial viability of the olive because the harvest must be handpicked; machinery cannot be driven on the rugged terrain where farms are “vertical” on the steep mountainsides.
But this challenge is not special to olives. And diversifying the agricultural base is good news for Maui. “We know we can get the olives, because I have pictures of tons of olives on these trees,” Battersby says of how the crop has proven itself even in four short years. “So now, we can move a little bit faster and promote it a little bit more.” Photos courtesy of Calasa Gulch Olive Tree Farm